Ask the Clark Gardener

Dear Fellow Gardeners:


December 21, 2012. The once and future Clark Botanic Garden.

A very enjoyable part of working at Clark Botanic Garden has been interacting with our many visitors. The visitor who described Clark as Shangri-La. The couple who lived in Manhattan and rented a car occasionally to visit Clark. The couple who had their favorite bench in the Winter Garden. The gentleman whose favorite tree was one of our bald cypresses (Taxodium distichum) and who would pause in front of it to appreciate how much it had grown since his last visit. Those that were refreshed by the peaceful, secluded nature of Clark Garden in the middle of an increasingly busy New York suburb. But the visitors that really made me pause and feel proud were the numerous ones that would pass by where I was working, wish me a good day, and simply say “Thanks.”

Then came Sandy. To be honest, it has taken me almost two months to be able to try to write something about Sandy. One reason for this is that I had to gain a better perspective of the chaos that resulted from this storm. Only time allowed that to happen. On another level, it seemed almost trivial to write about the storm’s impact on a botanic garden with all the personal losses for so many. Injuries, possessions lost, houses requiring major repairs or irreparable, and the holidays approaching for so many still living in temporary arrangements. But what happened here at Clark is part of the story of The Storm too. A story of a public space treasured and appreciated by many.

I came back to work at Clark the day after Sandy ended, Halloween. I couldn’t even begin to take in the real extent of the damage until I later tried to walk all around the entire garden. But first, I encountered only one other co-worker that day, and he was needed elsewhere. He was needed to help clear the streets so that town residents could start the move back to some kind of normalcy. As he hurried off the Clark grounds, I asked my co-worker if he thought that I should start to clean up. All he said was an almost desperate, “Please.”

I was now alone. There was plant and other debris everywhere. It was silent. It was eerie. I debated whether or not I should just go home. I looked around, overwhelmed. Then I bent down and picked up a broken branch. Then two, and started stacking them. Clearing a path for access for others to come and haul away the destruction. Who or when or how, I had no idea. It was my personal first step towards Clark’s renewal and restoration.

downed limbs

In the days that immediately followed, the rest of the Clark staff came and we tried to grasp what we needed to get done. Some were called to other parts of the town to help. We came despite major personal inconveniences. No electricity at home, no heat, no land line phone service, spotty cell phone service, growing gasoline shortages. Many traffic lights out of service. Streets blocked for clean-up and repair efforts between home and Clark, different from morning to afternoon, and from day to day, requiring on the spot rerouting again and again.

The conditions at Clark complemented those in the surroundings areas. The maintenance office, our “base station” was dark and cold. I started eating my store (one with electricity and refrigeration) bought lunch outside in the picnic area because it was warmer than in the office, and brighter. I managed to find a picnic table left undamaged by falling trees and tree limbs, in the shadow of the upended roots of a huge tree. The roots radiated in every direction and jutted more than five and a half feet out of the ground. It was like eating next to a too many armed petrified octopus looking over my shoulder.

uprooted tree

With no electricity in the greenhouse, and night temperatures dropping, we feared the loss of cold sensitive plants that we had already dug up and potted to protect. A portable kerosene heater seemed to be the answer, and we had two on the grounds. We soon found that one of them needed electricity to heat the igniter that lit the kerosene – so it was useless. The other heater used a battery for the igniter and would light fine. But the flame always extinguished itself just a few hours after it was lit, with plenty of fuel left. We never figured out why, but we ultimately had no greenhouse plant losses because of cold.

downed trees

It is hard to describe, in words, the extent of the damage to Clark. It was even hard to capture it in pictures. I took many pictures in the first days after Sandy and showed them to my wife. Then, a few days later, she came with me to see the damage in person. She was almost dumbstruck. She said that the pictures did not nearly capture the destruction. She didn’t know how I faced the devastation day after day – it was too sad and depressing.

downed trees

Then the nor’easter (some called Athena) hit, and created more ruin with its wet, heavy snow.

downed tree

How can one quantify the cumulative damage? Huge downed trees, paths blocked and obscured by debris. Other trees with their roots undisturbed and seemingly intact until one looked up and realized they no longer had any tops to them. Still other trees leaning on their neighbors and broken branches hung up high overhead, threatening to come crashing down with potential injury to the unwary. Younger or smaller, more flexible trees spared by Sandy, but conquered by Athena. Trees and shrubs totally intact but forever oddly bent by the vicious winds. A picnic table and numerous benches smashed. All three bridges that cross Clark’s streams damaged. Holes in the roof of the Clark family home. The bee box of Clark’s most vibrant hive cleaved by a fallen tree, with the bees exposed and expiring in days. There was so much debris as we started to clean up that I actually had a couple of occasions of disorientation and near panic – I knew generally where I was in the Garden, but so much of the familiar was distorted, covered or simply gone that I wasn’t sure if I was on a path or trampling a planted area.

downed tree and debris

downed tree and destroyed bridge rail

Some almost miraculous survivals also come to mind. Clark’s most massive and oldest tree, our roughly two hundred year old northern red oak (Quercus rubra) was virtually unscathed. Our longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), one of the first trees I expected to be destroyed, survived with minimal damage. Clark’s new gazebo, installed only last spring, was shielded from a huge, falling eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) by another tree bearing the force of the crushing blow.

But perhaps one of the most poignant sights at Clark is a remnant of Clark’s Halloween Spooky Walk. The Spooky Walk displays were dismantled hurriedly under the pressure of Sandy’s approaching wrath. In one of the more wooded areas of Clark, two plastic arms reaching up from the ground were left behind. Every time I pass this area, I keep thinking they belong to Mother Nature trying to draw back to herself all the trees so violently ripped from her earthly domain.

As electricity got restored, navigating between Clark and home became easier. We who work at Clark realized that it would take all of us not days or weeks, but months, working full time, just to remove the debris. So we took a step back and looked to what would normally be happening in Clark in early November, and we divided resources. Some of us continued to clean up, but some of us took a second step towards Clark’s renewal and restoration, and trusted in Clark’s future. We planted spring bulbs, mostly tulips. Thousands of them.

downed tree limb and roof damage

Still later, as the holidays approached in December, Clark was the site for Winter Wonderland. Folks came to enjoy lights and other decorations. Children came to decorate cookies, and see the electric trains. The area near the entrance to Clark Garden looked almost normal by the time of this event. However, the majority of Clark Garden remained closed to the public. While setting up for the Winter Wonderland activities, we salvaged logs from destroyed, but once treasured trees and asked people for donations for the logs. Raising a few hundred dollars from those donations was our third step towards Clark Garden’s restoration and renewal.

downed trees

One still cannot move freely throughout many sections of Clark’s more wooded areas. There is significant clean up still to do, and some areas are still potentially dangerous for public access. As we continue to clean up and literally remove layers of debris, we uncover more damage that was not immediately evident. Even the clean-up effort itself can do additional damage. For example, we need heavy vehicles and machinery to deal with the more massive trees that still need to be removed. This machinery, though necessary, damages paths and can ruin soil structure. We don’t know when we will be able to open Clark Garden in its entirety to the public, but we will!

I envision that sometime next spring, on some beautiful, sunny day, we will dig a hole somewhere in Clark Garden and plant the first replacement for one of the trees we have lost. This will be the beginning of our fourth and ongoing step to restore and renew Clark Garden.

I remember reading somewhere or being told that planting a tree shows an enormous faith in the future. A long lived tree may not reach its prime until long after the person who plants it is gone. We who work at Clark Garden emotionally feel the truth of this with the enormity of the task before us.

I also dream that sometime next spring we will be able to open Clark Garden fully, and that, as in the past, some visitors will stroll by while I’m working on the grounds. I trust that they will experience beauty, be refreshed, and feel at peace. I would love to hear a “Thanks.” And I might just answer back, “Spread the word. Tell people to keep coming back. You haven’t seen anything yet!”

Help! Clark Botanic Garden needs hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor, and thousands and thousands of dollars for restoration and renewal. Please send contributions for this effort to Fanny Dwight Clark Memorial Garden, Inc., 193 I.U. Willets Road, Albertson, NY 11507-2298.

And, just a reminder, if you have a comment, horticultural question, or general question about Clark Botanic Garden, remember to send them to me at CBGardener2@gmail.com.

The Clark Gardener

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